Head-to-Head: Microsoft Surface Vs. Apple iPad

Surface RT Vs. iPad 3

Microsoft's Monday announcement of an "iPad killer" device called Surface has once again proven the company's ability to surprise the world.

What emerged from the secretive press conference in Los Angeles was the revelation of two tablet devices: an Intel Core-based tablet called Surface for Windows 8 Pro that’s set for availability along with Windows 8 (widely expected this fall) and an ARM-based device dubbed Surface for Windows RT, expected about 90 days later. During the press event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seemed uninspired -- perhaps even angry -- as he described a device specifically designed for people who want to "create and consume...to work and to play...on the couch, at their desk and on the go."

Perhaps Ballmer believed (as we did about a minute into the second segment of the announcement) that the announcement may have been premature. Presenter demeanor aside, Surface is a strong product, and spec-for-spec is a worthy competitor to the Apple iPad 3.

CPU, GPU And Memory

The first computer to brandish the Microsoft name will be equipped with a quad-core processor. The Surface for Windows RT tablet will be built around the Tegra 3 system-on-chip by Nvidia. The Tegra 3 includes a GeForce GPU and supports a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 pixels.

Apple's A5X custom SoC, which powers the iPad 3, packs two Cortex A9 cores with four PowerVR graphics cores. Both the A5 and A5X circuits include ARM Cortex-based dual-core processors that are designed according to Apple's performance and power specifications.

If more is better, the clear advantage goes to Surface for Windows RT, which more than doubles the number of processor cores of iPad and offers plenty of graphics horsepower. Both are available with as much as 64 GB of memory.



Both tablets will include a 10.6-inch HD display with Microsoft's "ClearType" sub-pixel rendering technology behind Gorilla Glass 2.0 from Corning. According to Michael Angiulo, Microsoft's corporate VP of Windows planning, hardware and PC ecosystem, technology in the custom-made display "makes it impossible for the human eye to distinguish individual pixels when held at the optimal distance of 17 inches, less than an arm's length."

Apple makes similar claims about the 9.7-inch Retina display, which it unveiled in a 2011 iPhone, added to the iPad 3 and now offers on its Macs too. Apple says that at 264 pixels per inch, Retina's pixel density closely matches that of the human retina and doubles that of the iPad 2. Microsoft wasn't specific about the maximum pixel resolution of Surface for Windows RT, but since it claims a 16:9 HD display, we have to assume it's at least 1,920 x 1,050. Since the iPad 3's specified resolution is 2,048 x 1,536, we'd give this one to Apple.



Regarding physical dimensions, Microsoft provided only weight and thickness of its Surface devices; the exact length and width are unknown. The RT version tips the scales at 1.49 pounds (676g) and is 0.36 inches (9.3mm) thick. The lightest iPad 3 model weighs 1.44 pounds (652g) and is 0.37 inches (9.4mm) thick. So at first glance one might say the dimensions were a wash until you remember that Surface includes a keyboard, screen cover and kickstand.



Again, Microsoft was short on details when it came to Surface communications. There's Wi-Fi, of course, and Redmond played up the dual MIMO (multiple-input, multiple output) antennas that give Surface the "best possible Wi-Fi experience regardless of angle." There was no mention of Bluetooth connectivity or a cellular option.

The version of iOS released with the iPad 3 allows it to be configured as a Wi-Fi hotspot for as many as five devices. What's more, iPad 3 is equipped with Bluetooth 4.0 high-speed, low-energy protocols plus 3G/4G options for AT&T and Verizon networks.


Inputs And Outputs

Criticized for their lack of a hardware keyboard, Microsoft provides a simple solution with its tablets: Touch Cover and Type Cover. "The vision is to let you produce content when you want it, how you want it, as fast as you've always done it," said Panos Panay, general manager of Surface.

The magnetically attached keyboard is easily removed, doubles as a screen cover and folds under the Surface and automatically disables when not in use. When connected, the Metro screen’s background color changes to match the keyboard. Both keyboards include a touchpad with multi-touch gestures and dedicated function keys. Keyboards this tightly integrated with iPad cost $100+.

Surface also delivers USB, Micro HD video and microSD slots. It also has a magnetic power connector that’s similar to the MacBooks’ patented MagSafe. The iPad’s only connector is the proprietary 30-pin dock connector and headphone jack.


Surface Vs. iPad Bottom Line

There are still many Surface unknowns; Microsoft didn't announce pricing or details about distribution except to say that it would be sold through its own stores and online outlets, and not through the channel. We also don't know when it will be available; rumors of the Windows 8 release date are all over the calendar.

What we do know is that the iPad is available now and people like its user interface, are satisfied with processor and battery performance, and appreciate the quantity and diversity of its apps. None of those things are true of Surface. What is true is that according to Microsoft claims, Surface will offer specs superior to iPad in terms of CPU, GPU and memory, and include inputs and outputs that iPad users have had to pay extra for. Microsoft was silent on whether it would offer cellular options for Surface.

Entering the tablet arena, Redmond faces some technical challenges, not the least of which will be the execution of a consumer marketing campaign against one of the largest, most powerful consumer-device makers in the world.

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